Grif Vindh, captain of the Fool’s Errand, squinted through his digital binoculars and frowned. The frown deepened for a moment, then faded with a sigh as he dropped his arm and turned to his two companions.
“It’s not the double-cross that bothers me,” he said finally. “Well. It bothers me a little. It makes everything more complicated than I’d like. But what really bothers me is that they obviously didn’t put any effort into it.”
“Let me see.” Cyrus Mak, his chief gunner, impatiently held out one of his large, meaty hands. Grif shrugged, handed the binoculars over, and waited patiently as the big man looked through them for a moment, then scowled. “Hell, Grif, that’s pathetic.”
“I know!” Grif said. “That’s my point! I have half a mind to go down there and tell them to stop being idiots and ambush us properly.”
“There’s four of them.” Cyrus’ voice was thick with disgust. “Four. And every single one keeps staring at the cliff.”
“They might as well just put up a sign,” Grif agreed. “’HEY WE HAVE SNIPERS UP ON THAT CLIFF. THOUGHT YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW. LOVE, THE TREACHEROUS IDIOTS.’”
“Now let’s be fair.” Amys Sif, Grif’s first officer, was trying very hard to hold back her laughter. “This is a fringe world. We’re at the frontier. We can’t expect the savages who live out here to know a damn thing about survival.”
“You have a point,” Grif said. “I mean, most settlers come out to these primitive, under-developed worlds to retire, live a life of ease… they don’t want to be bothered with the day-to-day challenges of not getting killed. Out here, in this wilderness, away from the comforts of modern society, I’m sure it’s very easy to stop thinking about the various and sundry ways their lives could end in a permanent and brutal fashion.”
Sharp, clear laughter rang out as Amys gave up trying to hold it back.
“The good news,” Grif said, “is that if they’re as good at negotiating as they are treachery, we may very well manage to get paid twice.”
Grif Vindh was a man of average height and build. His dark hair was short and tangled—in perpetual need of combing—and he had a faint shadow of beard that was always on the verge of becoming more than stubble, but never quite got there. He had the look of someone who had trouble sleeping (which was true) and who rarely paid attention (which was not).
Cyrus Mak was a huge man with dirty-blond hair that fell to his shoulders. His thick, rough beard was nicked in numerous places where facial scars made growth impossible. He was not an attractive man; the term “villainous” had been used on more than one occasion to describe him, and he looked every bit the part.
Amys Sif was a tall woman—slightly taller than Grif—and very well-toned. She didn’t meet Cyrus’ stature or build, but she moved with the strength and fluidity of someone who knew how to handle herself. Her long, dark hair was tied loosely back, and fell half way down to her waist.
Grif looked down at the ridge where the would-be snipers sat and shook his head. “Well, I guess we should go meet the asshole who set this up.”
They made their way down the trail that took them under the ridge and into the line of fire.
“When do you think they’ll try to take us out?” Cyrus asked.
“Well,” Grif said, panting slightly, “I have great hopes that they won’t get the opportunity. Assuming Mac and his people do their job. Which I think they will. I’m pretty sure they will. So far they don’t strike me as incompetent.”
“They’ll get it done,” Cyrus said confidently. Amys said nothing.
“Not to change the subject,” Grif added, using his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead, “but the next time I agree to take a job to help out a friend, I’m going to make sure it doesn’t involve walking around on a planet that exceeds one standard gravity.”
“Quit crying,” Amys said, smiling slightly. “It makes you look less manly.”
“I really don’t have a problem with that,” Grif said. “Besides, I was manly enough, once upon a time. Manly enough to attract the interest of a young Miss Sif. Made her swoon, I did.”
“I never swooned,” Amys said levelly.
“Oh, you swooned all right. Swooned like a schoolgir—ow! Fine! Fine, you never swooned! Uncle!”
Cyrus laughed. “Are you sure you aren’t still together? Because you fight like a—ow! Amys! Damn it all, I give!”
Amys grinned. “Come on, boys. Don’t want to be late to our own ambush.”
“That would be rude,” Grif agreed.
Their path took them down the back of the mountain, winding around its base until it opened up into the valley where they were supposed to meet their contacts. As they entered the valley—a pretty grim basin of rock and dried, ropy vegetation that was vaguely blue—Grif considered the perch where the snipers lay in wait.
“Well they’re still idiots,” Grif said, “but they did choose a good spot for an ambush. If they were at all competent we’d be sitting ducks.”
“Why would Dak do business with them?” Amys asked. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for hours. He has better standards than this.”
“Two possible reasons,” Grif said. “First, Captain Wallace has a reputation for… uh… well. If you try to double-cross him and you fail, things don’t go well for you, and they don’t go well for you for a very long time.”
“He is vindictive,” Cyrus agreed. “Especially when you get his dander up. And double-crossing him does that.”
“So it’s entirely possible these guys never tried to cross him because they’re scared of him,” Grif said. “Not that I’d blame them. I consider him a friend, and I still get a little uneasy around him from time to time.”
“He’s good people,” Cyrus protested.
“He’s a smuggler, a pirate, and a thief,” Amys said.
“Well so are we,” Grif said, “and we’re good people.”
Amys stopped walking, turned to look at Grif, and raised an eyebrow.
“Well… we’re fun people.”
“You said there were two possible reasons,” Amys said. “What’s the second?”
“Oh,” Grif said, “right. The second reason is that Dak’s usual contact died, and a moron got a field promotion.”
A few minutes later the tiny figures at the far end of the valley began to move in their direction.
“I think the incompetent double-crossers just noticed us,” Amys said.
“Excellent.” Grif looped the thumb of his right hand in his holster belt, hand resting near the grip of his pistol. “Let’s get this over with and go home.”
He raised his other arm in greeting. The group halted a moment, then the man in front raised his arm in return. A moment later they resumed walking.
“Two of them are hiding weapons under their clothing.” Cyrus kept his voice low and conversational.
“The man in the black vest and the man in the blue scarf?” Amys kept her voice just as low, acting for all the world like she was commenting on the weather.
“I was going to say ‘the man in the blue scarf and the man in the skullcap,’” Cyrus said. “But now that you mention it, yeah, the man in the black vest too.”
“Skullcap,” Amys said. “I see it now. So three men armed.”
“They’re all armed,” Grif said.
Cyrus frowned. “I don’t see a weapon on the fourth guy.”
“Me either,” Amys said.
“Neither do I,” Grif said, “but if I’m the fourth guy and I notice the other three brought guns, I’m going home and getting mine.”
They watched the four men approach in silence. Finally Grif muttered “it’s option two. Moron got a field promotion.”
“Yeah?” Cyrus asked. “How can you tell?”
“The guy in front is the leader, but he’s way too happy about being in charge. He looks like someone just gave him a shiny new toy. He’s not used to it, and the other three aren’t used to it either. They’re on edge, and it’s not because of us. It’s him—he hasn’t earned their fear or their respect.”
“Agreed,” Amys said. “They’ll throw him under at the first sign of trouble. Which makes life easier for us...”
They lapsed into silence as they watched the four strangers approach. They were human, but their skin was very bright red—so bright it almost glowed in the harsh afternoon light. It wasn’t a natural pigment, Grif was certain of that. He suspected they were wearing some kind of ointment that protected them from prolonged exposure to the sun. They were all dressed in dark gray work pants with large side pockets and cheaply-made, loose-fitting tunics. One of the men wore a dark red skullcap, one wore a blue scarf tied loosely around his neck, one wore a black utility vest that hung open over his tunic, and one wore a self-satisfied smirk that made Grif want to punch him in the mouth.
The men came to a halt a short distance from Grif, Amys and Cyrus—short enough for them to talk, long enough to stay out of the way of sniper fire, assuming the snipers on the ridge were any good at their job. The two groups watched each other in an awkward silence that grew more uncomfortable as time stretched on. Finally Grif focused on the smirking man in front and said “you Lukh?”
The expression on the man’s face relaxed into one of careful neutrality. “Lukh can’t make it. Broke his leg in the mines. Can’t travel. I’m Alcian. I’m handling this for him.”
Grif noticed the man with the skullcap tighten his jaw. At least one of them was not happy about the way Alcian was “handling” this.
Grif nodded. “I’m Grif Vindh. I captain the Fool’s Errand. Why didn’t you let us drop the goods in your town? Would have been a lot easier, logistically speaking. Not sure why you wanted to meet here first.”
“Just being cautious,” Alcian said. “We usually do business with Captain Wallace. We’ve never heard of you before. It’s possible he asked you take this run for him… it’s also possible you’re pirates, you took his cargo, and are now trying to figure out whether we’re worth going after as well.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. Most fringe worlds weren’t formally part of any particular government; the ones that were had to fend for themselves until the governments found a reason to care about them, making it an association in name only. This made them attractive targets. If they hadn’t discovered the ambush beforehand Grif might have found it plausible.
Alcian looked at the three of them of them and frowned. “Where is the cargo?”
“On my ship,” Grif said.
“Why is that?” Alcian’s voice had a slight edge to it. “Are you trying to cheat us, Captain Vindh?”
“No,” Grif said, “but that’s a lot of cargo, and we’re being paid for one delivery. Tell us where you want it, show us you can pay for it, and we’ll drop it wherever you like.”
Alcian frowned. “I don’t think—”
“Look,” Grif said, “Normally I’d be happy to let this play out to its amusing and humiliating conclusion, but I’m getting impatient and I’d like to be on my way. I don’t particularly like dealing with idiots—I don’t mean you fine gentlemen, I don’t blame you for this at all, I’m talking about your, um, ‘leader’ here—and I don’t like being double-crossed. But what I really object to is when the person trying to double-cross me does such a piss-poor job at it. I mean, you arrange a meeting in the middle of nowhere and it doesn’t occur to you we might suspect an ambush?”
Alcian’s eyes widened in alarm.
“And you thought we were going to bring the cargo with us? Really? That’s the best part of this whole thing. You thought we were going to set a twenty-five ton ore processing station down right here on this spot, and you didn’t bring anything with you to carry it off.”
The man wearing the utility vest sighed in agreement. Alcian shot him a withering glance.
“Maybe I’m underestimating you,” Grif continued. “Maybe you have a lift parked around the corner, out of sight. Maybe you have it all planned out. What I’m particularly curious about, though, is what you were going to do when, after your boys on the ridge finish shooting us dead, my crew realizes they aren’t getting paid and they aim my ship’s proton cannon directly at your town square.”
Alcian’s men exchanged nervous glances.
Alcian opened his mouth to speak. “I think perhaps—”
“No,” Grif said, pointing at Alcian with his left hand while fishing a comm link out of his pocket with his right. “You shut up now.” He activated the comm link. “Mac, you there?”
A cheerful, gravelly voice emitted from the small device. “Everything’s fine here. They weren’t expecting us, it all went down quiet. They’re still alive. You didn’t want ‘em dead, did you?”
Alcian went very, very still.
“Well, I guess I didn’t specify one way or the other,” Grif said, “but it’s just as well. Put one on, will you? I think that’ll speed things along on this end.”
“I think we can arrange that…”
A moment later, a much younger, very sullen voice spoke. “It’s Rugesh. I… we didn’t see them.”
“Idiot!” Alcian spat.
“I seem to remember telling you to be quiet,” Grif said. “Amys, do you remember me telling him to be quiet?”
“I do,” Amys said. “Very clearly.”
“That’s what I thought.” Grif turned to face the man in the skullcap. “I’m not talking to him any more. I am hereby appointing you as the provisional leader of your delegation. Do any of you object?”
“I object!” Alcian shouted, face red.
“You don’t count,” Grif said dismissively. “What about the rest of you?”
“Fine by me,” the new provisional leader said. The other two men nodded in agreement.
“Great,” Grif said. “What’s your name?”
“Yusuf,” the man said.
“Great. Yusuf, I would still like to do business with your town, but I’m not in a very good mood. This means I’m probably going to raise my price, but if you don’t have the funds I’m willing to consider barter. I think it’s best for everyone involved if we go talk to Lukh. Do you agree?”
Yusuf frowned at the prospect of having to pay more for their cargo. Finally he nodded. “I agree. We’ll take it to Lukh.”
“Great,” Grif said, then re-activated his comm link. “Mac, take your guests to the colony. We’ll meet you there.” He deactivated the comm link again, then turned back to Yusuf. “Well, let’s go talk to your boss and see if we can salvage this increasingly awkward business relationship.”
“Why?” Yusuf asked. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ll deal. But why would you?”
Grif raised an eyebrow. “I’m not a complicated man, Yusuf. I prefer life’s simple pleasures: very strong drink, the company of a woman of very flexible standards, and getting paid. I won’t be drinking with you—not any time soon, at any rate, no offense—and whatever your standards may be, you’re not my type. That gives you one chance left to make me a happy man.”
Yusuf shrugged. “Let’s go see the boss.”
“Good man,” Grif said. “I can feel my mood improving already.”